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Month: May 2010

The Plant That Ate My Life

Spoiler Warning

This blog post includes spoilers for the stage show, which is different from the 1980’s movie in a few important places. I probably won’t go into enough detail for this to come up much, but on occasion I may need to explain key moments so I can describe how I was lighting them and why.

My Involvement With The Show

For my sins, I’m involved with the St. Jude’s Players. They’re a local amateur theatre group who’ve been running since the 1950s, and who also maintain and run the social hall where so many other things I’m involved in take place. Mostly I’ve been involved with the group as lighting designer & lighting tech (yes, the two roles are different), with occasional forays into being a stagehand and even acting.

Before Get-In

As is normal, it wasn’t worth my getting too involved early on. Things tend to change so much in the early days of the production that any early attempts at lighting designs just get thrown away… so instead I just read the script and try to get an idea of what’s likely to stay consistent, rather than any fine detail specifics. Sure enough, this show was no exception – whilst the idea of using a box set remained, the exact shape of the box went through a few iterations. Where the shop window ended up tended to change, for instance. At one point, there was going to be a revolving section of stage.

So early on, I just mulled over some rough ideas in my head and let things gradually firm up a bit so I could get going in earnest. Every once in a while I would poke my head in to the pavilion where the set is initially built to get a look at what things were looking like, but because of the limitations of the space I wasn’t able to get a clear picture of exactly what it would be like. The lower, sloping ceiling meant that the walls weren’t arranged quite the same way that they would be on stage, so I couldn’t tell what would line up with what. It was becoming clear that I wouldn’t really be able to light the stage from the sides or from behind, though… which was slightly concerning. So I started to consider what I might be able to do to get around that… starting to think about rigging extra bars to hang lanterns from and that sort of thing.

In the end, I decided to just keep some rough ideas for what I wanted and from what directions, and to fudge it about a bit once the set was on the stage. A risky approach, but about the only one I could see working at the time.

The one thing I did do, though, was to remove (or “drop”, to use the technical term) all of the lanterns and cabling from above the stage so that it wouldn’t be in the way

Get-In / Setbuild

Loading and Unloading

We were quite lucky this time around, in that we were doing the set build a fortnight before the show, rather than the usual week. For the uninitiated, when the St. Jude’s Players refer to the setbuild, they mean the final build on stage, as opposed to the initial build in the pavilion. Elsewhere, this is often referred to as the “get-in”, and I’m going to stick with that terminology here to avoid confusion.

For me, the get-in went a bit differently to usual. Normally, I try to get started getting lighting and tech set up before everyone else arrives, so I’m normally left near enough on my own at the hall (sometimes with a hastily appointed minion if one can be found) to ferry all of the lighting and sound equipment from the tech cupboard to the hall and get it all set up on a table at the back. This time, though, because there was a lot to bring over from the pavilion I went to assist with loading instead. Piling flats, tools and fixings onto (and then off of) a van isn’t the most thrilling job in the world, so I won’t dwell on that much more.

Setbuild Pic #1

Setbuild Pic #2

Building the Tech Desk

This did mean that when I got back to the hall, there were more people around than usual… so things just seemed a bit more frantic than usual when I got to setting up the tech desk. We don’t have a permanent control room or tech booth or anything like that – for each show we have to set everything that lives front-of-house up from scratch. The only thing we do have set up are some control cables running from stage to where we tend to set things up, for which I am infinitely grateful.

At this point I gained a minion, who assisted me in bringing down all the kit from the tech cupboard and getting the lighting and sound control kit set up. For a while we weren’t sure if we’d be able to leave it all in place for the fortnight until the show, as the hall would be in use by others in that time… but after a bit of checking it turned out we would be okay, so we pressed on. There’s a surprising amount of equipment involved.

For the lighting side of things, there’s not much kit at the back of the room. The lineup is as follows:

  • Demultiplexer – we have a mix of DMX and analogue equipment. This widget lets us control the analogue kit with a DMX controller.
  • Rats nest cable – this is my affectionate name for the lovely bit of cabling that links the demultiplexer to the analogue dimmer racks.
  • USB DMX interface – this is actually mine, rather than the group’s, although the group is looking to get one. It lets us control the lighting rig with software a PC rather than being limited by a physical desk.
  • Laptop PC with software – again, this doesn’t belong to the group. The software I use is QLC, which free open source software, and is easily good enough for our needs at the moment, although it does have some limitations.

For sound, though, there’s a lot more. Mixer desk, amplifier, CD player (for music), Minidisc player (for effects), speakers, radio mics, etc… most of which is heavy and awkward, which is one of the reasons I’m not a sound tech!

Of course, there were the lanterns that I’d taken down from above the stage to increase the “awkward” quota for lighting, but none of them were really heavy. Unlike the followspots. I hate the followspots. We have two, one of which is both large and awkward. The other… I left for later because I didn’t want my arms to fall off.

The Lighting Rig – Front of House

With all the kit in place, I started to get on with sorting out the front of house lighting. I’ve been trying for some time to get a decent, reliable, flexible front of house rig up and running in the hall. I’ve had some success, but it’s not made easy by the shape of the stage and the room. Lots of things don’t quite line up where I’d like them to – for example, it’s very difficult to angle lights to reach the rear of the stage as the borders for the mid-stage tabs are too low. Likewise, I can’t use much top light as the ceiling above the stage is quite low.

But this time I think I’ve finally got things to behave a bit more. Two sets of fresnels rigged either side of the front of the stage providing sidelight to the thurst (the part of the stage in front of the proscenium arch – which is about a third of our stage), one set coloured steel, the other coloured straw. Sidelight like this helps pick out the shape and contours of those it lights, but on its own it can make it difficult to see people’s faces clearly.

To help pick out faces, I rigged a number of frontlights. I used eight profiles (three pairs, two individuals) to create five overlapping pools of frontlight – far stage right, stage right, centre stage, stage left, far stage left. These were general cover frontlights that could be used to pick out specific areas where action was taking place.

As it turned out, having the five independent pools (rather than my usual three) was handy. The stage could often be divided up in several different ways. When the tabs were closed, the entire width of the extended stage was being used to represent either the street outside the shop or the dentist’s surgery. In those cases, all five pools would need to be lit. When the tabs were open, the areas of the thrust in front of the juliettes (doors in the proscenium arch, actually covered over by brick patterned flats for this show) represented the street, and the area behind the arch was the shop. To complicate matters, the part of the thrust which wasn’t in front of the juliettes could be either in the shop or on the street, depending on context… if a cast member had walked out the the shop door, and came back in a different entrance, they were outdoors. If they came in via the shop door, they were indoors. In general, if there were a mix of people indoors and outdoors, those who were outdoors were on the thrust and those who were indoors were behind the line of the arch.

So, if the scene was the shop, I’d use the stage left, centre stage and stage right pools. If the scene was outdoors, I’d use either all five pools (if they were using the width of the apron) or just the far stage left or far stage right pools. If there was action inside and out, I’d use the stage left, centre stage and stage right pools, but add in far stage left or far stage right as desired.

It took a while to get this lot focussed and lined up – and half of it was rough focussing as the room wasn’t properly dark and the stage was covered in people trying to build the actual set. Of course, by the time I’d got that lot rigged, patched and focussed (patching being the process of plugging the lantern in to a numbered socket on the lighting bar, finding the matching numbered plug in the patch field and plugging it into a channel on a dimmer rack), the basics of the set were largely assembled.

Setbuild Pic #3

The Lighting Rig – Onstage

This meant I could actually work on putting up lanterns above the stage itself, as I now knew where there would be walls, windows and doors… all of which can be problematic when trying to shine lights around a stage.

To start with, I rigged some extra sidelights. The ones I’d rigged front of house earlier would only cover the thrust and a short way back on the stage – they wouldn’t cover the rear of the stage at all. Once again, I used two pairs of fresnels, coloured steel and straw. Steel is good for cold, harsh light or nighttime, where straw is good for warm, cosy light or daytime.

One those were up, I added in our eight fancy colour changing LED PARcans. Because of the odd shape of the set, I was slightly limited in where I could hang these – particularly as I couldn’t use the rear lighting bar as the set was in the way. I also had plans that meant I’d need to use one behind the rear wall of the set, so that I could provide light and colour to the view through a window that various cast member would walk past at from time to time. In the end I settled on one behind the rear wall, angled to come in from stage left, two pairs above the front of the stage. I also found that I could, with a bit of persuasion, rig three of them a little precariously on a bar used for hanging a tab border. The pairs were fanned so that one of the lanterns in a pair downstage left was angled stage right and the other stage left and vice versa. The set of three I’d rigged centre stage at the rear were also fanned, so that one was pointing stage left, one centre stage and one stage right.

The seven of them gave a reasonable coverage of colour across the whole stage, but I could also use them individually to provide colour to specific locations as needed.

Setbuild Pic #4

The Lighting Rig – Specials

Everything up to this point had been to provide general lighting – providing a set of tools that could be put to all sorts of uses when trying to build up the lighting for a scene. Sometimes, though, you need something specific, and you have to rig some lanterns specifically for that purpose. Those lanterns are called specials. For this show, I knew I’d need some for the various stages of the plant’s life, for a clock advancing to show the passing of time and for the window I mentioned earlier.

I used a couple of fairly elderly profiles for the plant. For the small, hand puppet version of the plant, I rigged a small profile lantern almost directly above it, but slightly downstage and to the side, so it’s shadow would go behind it and away from the cast member who was interacting with it. This was focussed right down to a tight spot, but I couldn’t get it quite tight enough, so I shuttered it down even further. The shutters did actually mean that the lantern was putting out a fairly ugly jagged square beam, but because the audience couldn’t see the spot that was being projected, this didn’t matter in the slightest! Because this was intended to pick out the plant in stark contrast to everything else, and to really highlight it, I didn’t add any colour – leaving it “open white”.

For the larger, full body puppet versions of the plant, I used another small profile. This time I opened it out a fair way and coloured it green. Limitations on where I could hang the lantern meant that I had to put it front of house, which was less than ideal as it meant that anybody walking between the lantern and the plant would also be green… however, this rarely came up and because the cast member who did so was being tracked by a followspot, the green was overpowered by the followspot as he passed in front.

For the clock, I needed it to be good and bright so it could be picked out clearly. It was also high up on the rear wall, meaning that I couldn’t light it from on stage as the tab borders were too low! So I had to light it from front of house, on a low bar on the side of the hall. The distance and the need to really highlight the clock meant that I had to use a larger profile lantern, focussed down and shuttered. This meant I had to soften the focus somewhat to hide the fact that the beam was square. I’d have preferred to have used an iris for this, but alas, I couldn’t find one to fit the lantern.

The final special was for the window in the back wall of the shop. I could already provide colour at this window to differentiate between night and day for various scenes in the shop – and to provide a couple of other effects – but there wasn’t any frontlight for any cast members performing outside of the window. Since there was one song where the three chorus members popped up outside the window, and another moment where two of the cast walked past whilst talking to each other, I needed to provide some light there. There were quite a few limitations here…

First – I couldn’t rig a lantern in front of the wall, as I was needing to illuminate what was happening outside the window, not the window frame itself. Second, I couldn’t light it from the side, as three people needed to stand in a line outside the window – if I lit from the side, the one on the end would cast a shadow over the others. This left directly above as the only option, but directly above required the lantern to throw a very wide beam, otherwise the heads of the outer two of the three would be in the dark.

So I ended up doing something I’d not done before – I used a flood as a special. Rigged right behind the wall, angled slight back from straight down. Provided the cast were more than about six inches away from the wall, the light from the flood would hit them from in front, rather than above, so their hair wouldn’t put their eyes into shadow. Because it was behind the rear wall of the set, it also didn’t matter than it threw light all over the damned place – the audience can’t see through walls, so the only place the flood had any effect for the audience was through the window. The fact that I was also lighting the ladies changing room door and half of the stage left wing was largely irrelevant.

It seemed to work out.

Between Setbuild and Show

Planning and Programming – General Plans

The next stage of lighting the show is working out how to use the lanterns you’ve rigged to build up each scene. In doing this, you need to find ways to achieve four different things: conveying mood, conveying setting, highlighting activity and providing visibility. It’s a very rough rule of thumb, but a good way to look at it is that backlight and sidelight are good at conveying mood and setting, frontlight is good for providing visibility and frontlight and specials are good for highlighting activity.

In rough terms, what I was aiming for was to start off with relatively realistic lighting, getting progressively more vibrant and “showy” as things progressed, following the progression of the plot from the relatively mundane beginnings through to the fantastic and over the top ending. I was also aiming for the shop to start off cold and uninteresting, mirroring it’s state in the story as run down and failing. I then wanted this to transition to warm and inviting as it became more successful and the staff made more money, before becoming a place of horror and fear as events unfolded.

Planning and Programming – Standard Shop Scenes

To start with, I built basic scenes for a cold uninviting shop in the day and at night. For both of these, I used the steel sidelights and appropriate frontlights. For daytime, I used the LED PARcans to produce a light blue colour at a fairly low intensity for the inside of the shop, and a light greenish blue outside the window. I also added in a little of the window special to make it lighter outside, but not so much that it washed the colour away. For nighttime, I used the LED PARcans (both inside and outside) to create a dark blue wash.

Setbuild Pic #5

Then I modified these to produce a “time passing scene”, which was roughly halfway between the cold day and night scenes, but with the frontlights reduced and the clock special on full. This meant that you could still see what was happening on stage, but the reduced frontlight meant that the fine detail went away, except for the clock itself, which could be seen clearly and sharply. the whole time.

I needed a warm, cosy shop as well, which I achieved by taking the cold scene and changing the sidelights to straw and switching the blueish colour to be an orangey red. The night scene was almost identical to the cold daytime scene – the only difference was a slightly different shade of blue from the PARs.

Setbuild Pic #5

Over the course of my planing I needed several other variations on these scenes, but they were the basic building blocks from which most of them started.

I also needed a warm “outdoors, in front of tabs” scene and a cold “outdoors, in front of tabs” scene. These were fairly straightforward – because they were for when the tabs were closed, I would only have the front of house lanterns available. As a result, these scenes were made up frontlight and sidelight only. Again, there would be variations needed, with particular areas of the apron highlighted or darkened, but these were the building blocks.

Planning and Programming – Time Passing

The first special moments I programmed in were the “time passes” moments, where a clock on stage was advancing rapidly. This was difficult to plan for, as the clock wasn’t there yet. So I programmed in the scenes and then had to set the transitions and cues later. It showed that the cues were late coming because the cast weren’t used to waiting for the clock to advance, and so pressed on regardless. It was made even more awkward as the clock was behind the cast, so they couldn’t see it. Instead, they had to listen to the band, who were playing “tick-tock” music until the clock stopped in the right place. Of course, the clock stopping in the right place was also slightly awkward, as the person operating it was behind the flat, and so couldn’t see the clock’s face. I was too busy dealing with a rapid succession of lighting cues to be able to alert him over the radio when he was in the right place, so the sound guy was having to do it instead.

This all meant that the sequence for the clock changing went like this: A cast member gets into position, which is the bands cue to start the “tick-tock” music and my cue to transition into the “time-passes” scene, which is backstage’s cue to start moving the clock, which is sound’s cue to watch the clock and announce on the radio when it’s in the right place, which is backstage’s cue to stop moving it, which is the band’s cue to stop playing the “tick-tock” music and my cue to transition into the appropriate scene, which is the cast’s cue to continue. We did this a few times each show. It wasn’t the simplest of processes, and could probably have used a couple more rehearsals, but I don’t think it was too painful.

Planning and Programming – Plant Effects

The most obvious special moments that were called for were when the plant was involved. The first of these is when Seymour first brings out the plant he calls Audrey II. This leads in to a song, “Da-Doo”, where Christal, Chiffon and Ronette pop up outside the window as a chorus. As I mentioned above, I had a special prepared specifically for this, so I just needed to work out how long the transition needed to be to bring up that special, and when I needed to start that transition so it would be ready when the girls started to sing. I didn’t want it to be a sudden “light switch” moment, so I settled on about a one and a quarter second fade in, so I programmed the scene with that transition and then worked back through the script to find part of the dialogue that was 1.25 seconds earlier, and marked that as my cue.

Next came Seymour’s song “Grow For Me”, in which he first discovers the plant’s bloody diet. I wanted a similar transition as before, but this time the cue was a lot more fluid, so all I had to do was set up the scenes – simply adding the small-plant special in for the song and then taking it away afterwards.

Grow for me

There were several other moments that I addressed in a similar way – bringing up an extra lantern, or changing some settings. Most of these were based around the plant itself taking an active part in a scene. For some of these I used the green special I’d set up for this purpose, but in some cases it needed a little something more. So I also set the centre rear LED PARcan to either green or red, depending on the context, which put a pool of coloured top light onto the plant. In some cases later on, I even ditched the spot from front of house entirely and just used the PAR.

Planning and Programming – Devouring Scenes

The next biggie is probably after the dentist has died, where Seymour is seen feeding his chopped up corpse to a larger plant as the girls sing along nearby. The director wanted this to be a strong scene, and I agreed entirely. Thankfully, he also didn’t mind the girls only being visible in silhouette, which meant I could cut the frontlight, allowing me to get a really strong colour. I experimented a bit with a few variations, but in the end I went back to my first though… just the LED PARcans, putting out pure red. I think it worked well, and that having had any frontlight at all would have just cut through the colour too much, and made it less effective. The exact same settings were used when Mushnik is devoured.

Planning and Programming – Lightning

One scene opened with a flash of lightning, which is always slightly awkward to do well with basic equipment. To convey lighting effects well you generally need to have lanterns where there is no perceivable fade time when they come on or go off. People also expect lighting to be bright light illuminating a scene briefly, but with each

flash from a different directions. Lighting doesn’t usually actually work this way unless it’s arcing around you in some way, but it’s how it’s been portrayed on film (where they always want it to look impressive) so it’s what people expect. Traditionally you’d use strobes, linked together with a strobe controller so they fire in sequence. We only have one strobe, and we don’t have a specific controller for it, so all we can do is turn it on or off, with a dial on the back to set the strobe speed.

Thankfully, our LED PARcans have a serviceable strobe setting. So I created a chase between several of the PARcans, but with their strobe setting turned on and set to be good and fast. I made the chase so that on each step, a different set of parcans fired for about a tenth of a second on a fast strobe setting. I created four such groups, and then cycled through them in a semi-random order, finishing with a blackout before bringing up the next scene.

Planning and Programming – The Two Audreys

I wanted things to take a much more melodramatic later on the show. I’d gradually introduced more colour to the scenes throughout act two, but this really started to kick in at the point when the plant first speaks to Audrey. Starting at that moment, I set a slow fade to stronger colours, particularly switching the rear LED PARs from being arranged blue, green, blue to purple, red purple, whilst leaving the front PARs blue. This meant that as their dialogue went on, the scene switched from a fairy standard “nighttime in the shop” scene to something that called back to the other times where somebody’s been fed to the plant.

Because Seymour rescues her before the plant can finish eating her, though, the stage never goes fully red at this point, instead staying in the softer red & blue state. When Seymour does pull her from the plant’s mouth, though, I left the red & blue scene in place for the start of the song that follows – a reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green”, Audrey’s longing song for a happy life somewhere nice with Seymour. However, about 11 seconds before the closing line of the song, I started a slow fade to a scene that consisted solely of centre stage frontlight and all of the LED PARs set to green. This meant that for the closing line of the song “Somewhere that’s green”, the pair are in a small, focussed pool of frontlight, with the rest of the stage bathed in green light, which remains as Audrey dies in Seymour’s arms.

It’s a bit obvious, I know, but that song was Audrey and Seymour’s last moment together, so it needed something… and it was a bittersweet moment, rather than angry or horrific, so the strong green light fitted quite nicely.

However, at her request, Seymour feeds her body to the plant – and that’s a very different feeling to the end of the song, so there needed to be a change. So I slowly faded back to the melodramatic scene I’d used when the plant first tried to eat her, but with the purples changed to red, and some of other lanterns switched to be more reddish as well.

Planning and Programming – Finale

The finale needed to be something special, and also something a bit different. Most of the cast are dead by this point, and when they come on to sing they’re meant to be memories of themselves rather than physically present, with the main focus of the finale being the malevolent plant itself. The lead in to the finale consisted of the girls singing in front of tabs, and then stepping aside as the tabs open to reveal a smoke filled stage with the plant moving forwards towards the audience. To make this dynamic and active but still horrific, I created another chase. This time, I had almost no frontlight or sidelight.. just colour from the PARs. The best way to describe it was that I had a strong green colour on the stage with a stripe of red light sweeping back and forth from stage left to stage right. As the cast members filed on to sing alongside the plant, the frontlight increased enough to pick them out and make them visible, but not so much that the colour was washed out.


This lead in to the curtain call, for which I re-used the melodramatic scene where audrey was almost eaten, but with more frontlight all across the apron, so that as the cast stepped forward to bow they were in full light.

Technical & Dress Rehearsals

With about 95% of the lighthing work done, we reached the two technical rehearsals (one for each act) and the dress rehearsal. The cast have been rehearsing for months, but the tech rehearsals are often the first time the tech crew get to run through everything they’ve got to do. Historically, they’ve been when I’ve had to do a lot of the planning and programming, but with the extra week between set build and rehearsal, this time I’d been able to do much of it over the week, and so was instead getting the chance to run through things for the first time and to fine tune things that didn’t quite work, or that hadn’t been programmed properly.

For the first tech, we still didn’t have the clock, so I didn’t get to run through that sequence with any accuracy. For the second, we didn’t need the clock because it’s only in act one. Which meant that the first time we actually did the clock sequence was at the dress rehearsal.

From my point of view, the tech rehearsals went really well. Most of the programming was correct, and I just needed to tweak some levels and nudge a bit of focus. Likewise, the dress rehearsal went well for everything except the clock… but the problems around that were mostly ironed out as a result of the slight debacle at the dress! I also had two followspot operators for the first time, which helped, as we could start working out what they needed to be doing at any given moment. Mostly they seemed to have good judgement, so I left them to detemine if they were needed or not, with me only having to intervene when I wanted things to be darker than usual.

The sound folks weren’t faring quite so well, though, as they were plagued by problems with radio mics. Problems that weren’t really fixable, too. They just weren’t working reliably. But then, to be fair, I have friends who are younger than those radio mics – they were going to start failing eventually.

On The Nights

Now that all of the real work had been done already, we had the shows. Three nights, with one lighting problem per night. On opening night, somebody leaned on a lightswitch backstage and turned on the working lights mid show – not much I can do about that except ask over the radio for them to be turned off again. So I did, and they were.

On the second night, the work counter had been placed wrongly, so my small-plant special was illuminating a till rather than the plant. Again, not a lot I can do about that.

On the final night my control software decided to randomly jump ahead four scenes instead of the one that I told it to, going to a slow fade into blackout. I caught it before it went totally dark, but only just. So we had about just under a second of near darkness where it shouldn’t have been, and an extraneous crossfades so I could get it to the right scene, as opposed to just “not dark”.

Unfortunately, the radio mics never did work properly, so a couple of voices on a couple of songs were quieter than they should have been. Now we know it’s an issue, it’ll be fixed for the next show that needs them.

A Plea

I was, regrettably, too busy running the lighting to take photos for most of the show. If you went to see it and took any photos where you can see the lighting (or are a member of the group who took some), please let me know! I’d love to attach some more photos to this, and will be happy to give you credit for them. The only photos I have are from setbuild and a few I managed to fit in at rehearsals between my assorted cues.

Edit: Now with a few extra photos from Sarah Lake, who was in the band. Thanks, Sarah!

Can’t Post… Plants Will Eat Me

Still Alive

I’m not dead or anything – I’ve just had virtually no free time recently. Theatrical commitments and my killer commute have put paid to any free time I would usually have for the past couple of weeks. Any time that I’ve not been at work, working on stage lighting or commuting has generally been spent either relaxing or sleeping in an attempt to stave of stress induced collapses and/or shotgun rampages.

But I haven’t forgotten all you folks out there. I’m still cobbling some ideas together for future posts, including a semi-work related post. I’ve got an idea for a User Experience related post… but you can relax, because it’ll be talking about LARP as well. Amongst other things, it’ll cover why I’m quite happy for people I work with to know about my LARP activity, and why I actually consider it a benefit when it comes to User Experience work. My only concern is that it’s a big topic, and there’s a lot of aspects to it. I may actually have to turn it into multiple posts, but doing so might dilute them. I’ll see how it goes.

I’m sure that the show will generate at least another post as well, assuming I survive.

Normal service will resume soon after the show is completed.

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